Pondering Adventure Games and Gameplay in Modern Gaming

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Pondering Adventure Games and Gameplay in Modern Gaming

Yahtzee is still tempted to make a new adventure game, but wonders how the gameplay should work.

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See, unlike Yahtzee, I wasn't raised up on adventure games as a kid, but grew up with the simple puzzle/combat "action adventure" games like mario 64. I never really played games where the story was enphasized and the the game was about interacting with characters as opposed to kicking ghosts and goombas. From what I've noticed, Yahtzee tends to focus on a game's core story or interactions over it other aspects, like combat or level design. I can only assume this is mostly based on how he grew up playing games, just as all of us grew up playing different games of different genre's.

Maybe its because the closest thing to adventure games I've played were psychonauts or the Ben and Dan games, but I never found adventure games to be all that fun. A good story is nice, but it can really only be told once, whereas gameplay offers short bursts of variety and demands the player to adapt to different situations. It could be why I have started to appreciate random-generation more and more...

I've played a lot of flash and unity point and click adventure games in my time. The two absolute stand out best are those made by ScriptWelder, particularly the highly atmospheric and pant-shittingly scary Deep Sleep games. The puzzles are fairly standard stuff, but it's everything else about them, like the visuals, sound design, and story which make them great.

http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/603900

The puzzles in the second Kyrandia game are one case where I feel the puzzles made the game. Note that the first game in the series is the worst example of pure filler garbage I've ever seen in the genre and the third game is pretty average. But for whatever reason, the second got it right.

Most of the puzzles simply revolved around a single mechanic: you found a cauldron early on and could brew potions. Then you'd find chunks of a spellbook and try to piece together the lost recipes. With lateral thinking and liberal interpretation of the ingredients, most potions could be made, but even then, not all were relevant to progressing the game.

It was a mechanic at its heart so simple, but which opened up some much creative freedom within a thin set of constraints. In turn, it meant puzzles could be deep and not brute-forcable whilst still straightforward without having explicit failure states. Really, I think that's the problem with the old Adventure genre. It's damn near impossible to create a scenario that offers the trifecta: reasonable logic, non-obvious solutions and narrow scope (cough, Scribblenauts).

Tim Schafer didn't make Maniac Mansion. He only helped out with the NES port.

I'm not sure I like the idea that challenge is even necessary for a game to be good or engaging. When I played The Walking Dead, it was never especially difficult. In fact, I'd say it's one of the easiest games I ever played. The choices ultimately don't matter that much, because the story is designed to snap back and reconverge every now and again. In spite of that, it was one of the most engaging experiences I ever played.

The reason TWD succeeds at this is because it was never obvious what it was doing, at least in a first playthrough[1]. The choices have a way of seeming impactful, even when they ultimately aren't.

In the long run, I think this is indicative of the direction that adventure games are going to have to take to remain interesting and relevant. It can be difficult to make decent challenge in a puzzle game where the only mechanics you have available are inventory and Myst-style minigames, but to assume that difficulty is the only way to take advantage of the medium is to miss out on a lot of possibilities. What makes games different from movies is not challenge, but interactivity. Challenge is simply one form that interactivity can take. I would like to see more games experiment with different interpretations of what "interactive" means rather than just attempting to refine what's already been done.

One example of experimentation gone right is the Ace Attorney series. I thought the Ace Attorney games had stupid stories and crappy puzzles, but they were definitely innovative and had a good, unique concept, something that takes the traditional adventure game structure and turns it on its head. Historically, these games tend to have items, and you either USE item on environment, USE item on character, or USE item on other item. Then along comes Capcom and asks the question: "Why not USE item on dialogue?". This is exactly what I mean by experimentation. No game had done this before. In the hands of a more competent writer (and if it'd been more forgiving about dialogue/evidence combos because stuff that should work doesn't always), it could've been amazing.

That isn't to say I want more games that play like Phoenix Wright. I mean, I do, but that really isn't what I'm getting at. I really appreciated this franchise for the fact that it significantly expanded on the adventure formula rather than just adhering to it. That is really one of Broken Age's biggest shortcoming. It does some new things with story, but nothing about the gameplay feels new or exciting. In limiting the game to an old formula, the developers also locked themselves into the old formula's shortcomings. Simplified verbs are certainly an improvement, but they don't help the game feel actually new, just... old but a little less clunky. They certainly don't solve the biggest problems with older adventure games, namely the guess-and-check "click everything on everything" method of playing that's often needed.

My challenge to Tim Schafer, and to any other would-be adventure game developers, is to innovate gameplay. Find something completely new that turns the genre on its side. If you can integrate your story into this innovation, so much the better, but what adventure games don't need right now is new stories tied to old, flawed gameplay models. Jurassic Park: The Game may have been a giant turd, but I have far more respect for Telltale for at least trying something new with it than I do for Double Fine, whose game was a paint-by-numbers recreation of everything adventure games have gotten wrong for decades.

P.S. Thanks

[1] As much as I adore this game, it has negative replay value. As far as I'm concerned, the only way to enjoy it is to play it once and then never touch it again, as a second playthrough actively ruins the first one

For all the shit it gets, Heavy Rain is a perfect example of a modern adventure game. Doesn't really have inventory puzzles, has lots of exploration, and all the mechanics are there purely to drive the story. And then people whined it wasn't a game. Would pointless inventory puzzles have made it a "game"?

I've long thought that a good direction to take the genre would be a game that confines the player to a fairly small environment but has much more open-ended gameplay. Rather than having a strictly linear plot where the player has to find the one way to progress to the next scene, rinse and repeat till finished, the player can pick up anything a real person could pick up, use it with anything a real person could use it with, talk to anyone and take the conversation in any direction a real person could try to, etc. And there are explicitly multiple paths to get to the end, so for example instead of punishing players for trying a solution other than the one the designer thought up, it would reward them for their resourcefulness and outside-the-box thinking. The drawback is that it would have to be developed Valve-style, with dozens of playtesters trying everything they can think of and recording the exact reasoning behind their decisions, and the game being updated accordingly.

Alternatively, if you're into the comedy side of adventure gaming, consider Jazzpunk, a game you really owe it to yourself to play. It's a short first-person game that barely has any challenge to it, but you can interact with a bunch of things that have nothing to do with the mission including a few actual sidequests. I remember your column about how it's difficult to do humor well in a game because games usually involve repetition; this game sidesteps that nicely by having pretty much everything only able to happen once -- possibly the reason why adventure games and humor have always gone well together. I think more games like Jazzpunk need to be made, and you seem to have the comedy chops to pull it off.

I've always said certain games and genres were only ever considered good because we had nothing to compare it to.

Challange is all well and good in games based on skill but if a game is based on story then it should be one anyone can enjoy. the other day i was browsing PC gamer when i noticed acclaimed adventure game designer Ronald Gilbert saying that modern adventure games get bogged down in story and my immidiate thought was: for a man who is basically to adventure games what Marx is to communism you sure are clueless about them Mr. Gilbert. i get that some poeple like puzzles even though i can't stand them but i think that if one is to make a proper "adventure" game and not just a puzzle game with good writing story has to be prioritized. puzzles are what killed the genre back when because suddenly you could play something fun and get a good story rather than having to go though dull annoying puzzles that were really just find the thing that fits with the thing. I'm currently playing dragon age and often find the combat frustrating. despite loving the soty i continue to quit in spite. the combat is good maybe 1/3 of the time but at any other time it just gets in the way of the engaging characters and clever dialog. it's like eating a hot dog drowned in cetchup, occasionally delicious and tedious a lot of the time. when you make thestory a reward for gameplay you loose the ability to reach all of your potential audience.

Last paragraph is pretty much the description of Ace Attorney series. Yes, it includes pieces of moon logic, but it never goes for long. My biggest frustration in quests is mostly "Where/What the fuck should I go/do?". I rarely had such problem with Ace Attorney series and most of them were in first trilogy. I think it is mostly because Ace Attorney has an understandable goal at any time - you must defend your client. To defend your client you must find evidence and find contradictions in testimony. Certain points on your road to the verdict may seem strange, but it never overwhelms you. Plus the game has 4-5 independent chapters, which also helps - no inventory oversaturation, which may happen in other quests.

The only point and click games I played are Flash games, and involved plumbers *ahem*

Anyway, did you really just self-advertise Yahtzee? And the lonk doesn't work :P

I've always liked adventure games (even now, although my aversion to moon-logic makes it hard to find decent ones).

I'm curious about one thing, though: is Portal an adventure game? I know, it's an FPS puzzle platformer. While the controls and stuff are different, it always felt like one to me. It makes me wonder if an adventure game is defined by the interface, the moon-logic, the story-telling, or something else. Something to think about, I suppose.

"I struggle to think of an example of a 'clever' inventory puzzle"
Well, there was the case of Zack and Wiki, who had technically an inventory of 1 item.

I'm reminded of Gone Home, which is something that's in that grey area of "Is it a game?" You, the player, come home to find your family home empty, and that's all I can say without spoilers.

So I'd say a good non-inventory puzzle for an adventure game is one where it's not about matching the blue key to the blue door, but the right info to the right scenario. It's learning organically through talking to characters in the town and reading schedules on the bulletin board that the King's Guard is underfed and Stephen works the night shift outside the vault alone, so you could lure him away with the temptation of food and commit your heist in peace.

I can think of two adventure games that fit Yahtzee's criteria: Facade, and Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments.

Facade has you interact with an upper middle class married couple, Trip and Grace. Their marriage is falling apart; by speaking to them through text, you can figure out what is making them unhappy and hopefully save their marriage. Of course, you can make them break up if you feel that's right.

Sherlock is...screw it, I'll post the Wikipedia section:

The majority of the game involves exploring crime scenes and examining clues. Once discovered, clues are added to a "deduction board", a gameplay mechanic which involves linking pieces of information together. It will lead to possible different deductions. Once deductions are connected together, player will have a full tree of deductions. Depending on how player interpretes the clues, they will have different conclusions. Therefore the player can fail or succeed in finding the culprit. He also decides whether he wants to absolve or condemn the criminal.

The one downside of this is that you never figure out the truth of the case. Sherlock can put whoever he wants in jail, but it's ultimately the player's responsibility to get it right.

I've always loved the genre, even though I usually feel a horrible sense of defeat whenever I sink towards pulling up an FAQ. Not the first to have suggested this, but there really needs to be a point & click adventure based on Gravity Falls. I'd be all over that like a fat man at a buffet.

This is the part where I gush for a while about Myst Online.

There's no inventory puzzles, only world puzzles based on observation and experimentation. Sometimes they don't work (Minkata's "Five Paths" puzzle is pretty tedious) but when they work, HOOOOOLYYYYYYYY BALLS are they absolutely brilliant. I'll never forget the time I solved the first part of Ahnonay and literally broke the world.

As a bonus, the puzzles are designed entirely to have significance to the overarching plot threads. Why is Kadish Tolesa full of grandiose padlocks? Because Kadish was a rich, indulgent and paranoid miser who literally locked himself in his tomb. Why is Ahnonay just a great big Truman Show illusion? Because the guy who owned it wanted to use it as a magic trick. Heck, even Minkata's Five Paths was ostensibly used as Maintainer orienteering training.

So yeah. Myst Online is a paragon of modern adventure puzzle design, minus Minkata and the Museum Pods. You can quote me on that.

While I do like Adventure games, I am drawn more to the comedic ones like Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max, Full Throttle, etc. I find that these often work better as games because not only do you have to write a compelling story, you have to be able to write funny jokes. While this does often require twice the effort, it shows commitment.

Question Yahtzee, have you had a chance to get into the Ace Attorney series? It's essentially the more perfected idea of the L.A. Noire formula you are talking about, but through the lens of court cases and investigations. Court hearings are only advanced by you cross examining witnesses and presenting facts that show contradictions to their stories. You also have a limited number of failures, which some might say is an arbitrary lives system, but I believe it adds the right amount of risk to make you want to think twice about your train of logic before you blow all your chances grasping at straws. Besides that, the characters and cases are very vivid and memorable, albeit campy, but in a fun way that fits the aesthetic. Give it a shot! (If you haven't already.)

Are we really raising the possibility if Four Days a Disappointing Sequel?
Cause I'm in!

Bob_McMillan:
The only point and click games I played are Flash games, and involved plumbers *ahem*

Anyway, did you really just self-advertise Yahtzee? And the lonk doesn't work :P

Well of course that didn't work; what the deuce is a "lonk"?

Do we count MediEvil as an adventure game, or an action one with puzzles in it? I still remember the Town level with it's chain of items to unlock stuff. Dan (you) is there to find something called The Shadow Artifact, which you need to progress through the Enchanted Forest, but it's locked in the safe in the Mayor's house (who needs rescuing from the Asylum a couple levels later). The key to that is hidden behind a wall in the church, which opens by placing a cross there. But you need to make the cross by finding a mold and a bronze bust and bringing them to the blacksmith's furnace and pump away on the bellows. That game had items that carried over from level to level!

captcha: Red Queen
That reminds me: there's a big Hedge Maze level that required solving riddles to progress, and one of them was moving around giant chess pieces.
That

Darth_Payn:

Bob_McMillan:
The only point and click games I played are Flash games, and involved plumbers *ahem*

Anyway, did you really just self-advertise Yahtzee? And the lonk doesn't work :P

Well of course that didn't work; what the deuce is a "lonk"?

Do we count MediEvil as an adventure game, or an action one with puzzles in it? I still remember the Town level with it's chain of items to unlock stuff. Dan (you) is there to find something called The Shadow Artifact, which you need to progress through the Enchanted Forest, but it's locked in the safe in the Mayor's house (who needs rescuing from the Asylum a couple levels later). The key to that is hidden behind a wall in the church, which opens by placing a cross there. But you need to make the cross by finding a mold and a bronze bust and bringing them to the blacksmith's furnace and pump away on the bellows. That game had items that carried over from level to level!

captcha: Red Queen
That reminds me: there's a big Hedge Maze level that required solving riddles to progress, and one of them was moving around giant chess pieces.
That

*link

Typing on mobile is like cutting vegetables without thumbs.

Blade Runner. There. A game that brought to point and click adventure games more innovation than David Cage could dream of(and don't worry, plenty of emoshuns too), and that was 18 years ago. No silly use-a-woodpecker-on-a-forklift type of puzzles, non-linear storyline, and multiple endings. Boggles my mind why next to no one has tried to copy this game.

Darth_Payn:

Well of course that didn't work; what the deuce is a "lonk"?

Hello, have you met my friend?
image

It's interesting as hell to watch his thought process on all this... as well as his ego stubbornly being force fed

But I also think he's palming an Ace and just waiting for someone in some interaction somewhere to guess it and then we can just jest it was in the cards all along

We hear what you are saying, Ben. Come help us with "sonder." We could always use one more opinionated, uncompromising adventure games fan!

https://vimeo.com/125564577
http://www.kamaikamai.com/index.php/en/projects

As mentioned by Cacophony, I think Gone Home is a good example of a "Modern Adventure Game", save the somewhat constructed ghost story...
It comes down to a thing I'm pondering now and then for over twenty years now: Which (good) non violent core interactions are possible in gaming, meaning, beyond shooting weapons? I maintain a simple list to which I add anytime I see, hear or think of something. Unfortunately, there's really not much in it which you couldn't make up on your own as a gaming person.
That said, imo the best modern (aka 3D with free roaming) and (almost) non violent adventure game is still Beyond Good & Evil with it's photo shooting gameplay.
Combine that with mechanics utilized in the Sherlock Holmes Series, Ace Attorney, La noir, Gone Home etc. and you have plenty of interactions to build with.

"...by accurately picking the right option from multiple choice dialogues that shows you have correctly interpreted their behaviour or examined something in another room."

That idea occurred to me, too, but I dismissed it before I reached your last paragraph - surely it would make for very tedious trial-and-error game-play? The problem would be even worse if their behaviour was subjective or its interpretation depended on the player's own cultural frame of reference.

Trial-and-error gameplay can work when the "trying" is inherently fun but I don't find dialogue trees to be much fun at all.

I thought the Blackwell games (or at least the first one, which is the only one I've played so far) did a good job. They essentially replaced the inventory with a notebook and instead of collecting items you collect names and words (there is an inventory too but it's mostly for story relevant items). It's functionally similar to an inventory but because it's words relating to a specific event you don't have to deal with random nonsense items. Everything has context so you're able to logically work things out.

SmallHatLogan:
I thought the Blackwell games (or at least the first one, which is the only one I've played so far) did a good job. They essentially replaced the inventory with a notebook and instead of collecting items you collect names and words (there is an inventory too but it's mostly for story relevant items). It's functionally similar to an inventory but because it's words relating to a specific event you don't have to deal with random nonsense items. Everything has context so you're able to logically work things out.

I agree. I rather liked the blackwell series, My biggest complaint, other then that the first game dumps a lot on you at the beginning, is that the 2nd to last game introduces a great sequel hook....and then the finale decides not to bother using it(there's like one line addressing it near the end and that's all you get).

Also, I thought the Last Express was a fun adventure game, with a few good action scenes built in, very little inventory puzzle stuff and an interesting save system(where you don't really save. If you mess up, you rewind the clock and do something a different way). It's also one of the few games to make use of the Orient Express as a setting, with all the intrigue that implies.

Yahtzee, have you ever tried a game called Primordia?

It seems the best fit to what you described at the end of your article - a "classic" adventure game that mainly uses non-inventory based puzzles that enhance the story that use logic and observation and with multiple solutions.

Hope you try it.

Well Yahtzee.

You said you didn't like the crazy logic train that you'd need to jump on in earlier adventure games?
And now you suggest we all jump on a crazy logic train of dialog options?

"Ah, you have chosen the wrong option, because this person is a narcissist and you needed to praise him to gain his ....."
"Ah, you have chosen the wrong option, because this person is a compulsive liar and you ...."
And so forth and so forth.

You see the point I'm trying to get at?
so instead of the moon logic of the graphics artist we're going to have to deal with the moon logic of the dialog writer.

MrCalavera:

Hello, have you met my friend?
image

Oh man, thanks for the laugh. Was having an okay day until that happened. And... people are looking at me funny now.

OT: I don't know, man. Point and click games were never good, especially in the gameplay department. Everything in those games was designed by writers, including the puzzles.

The solutions to those puzzles made for a good anecdote, but they were never intuitive or well-designed from a gameplay perspective. They always felt deliberately confusing and convoluted. And not in a good way. You just need to bash your head against them until they were solved instead of actually figuring it out.

If the story / writing from an adventure game could be melded with the puzzle design from games like Portal or Braid, I'd love to check that game out. The only problem then is this - would that count as an "adventure game" anymore?

I tend to think that games make a poor storytelling medium in general. Not that there aren't games with good stories, it's just that there are so many nagging annoyances that keep games from really being an ideal storytelling medium. They are really good at building world to explore and interact with, but the moment you try to shoehorn in the kind of linear focused narrative most people's idea of a story typically requires there usually ends up needing to be sacrifices in either the gameplay or the story for it to work.

But then again maybe trying to make a game tell a story is entirely the opposite thing that adventure games and other heavily narrative based games actually attempt to do. Maybe they should be looked at as stories with gameplay in it rather then the other way around. The thing about storytelling though is to me it should be mostly free from any obstacles that allow you to absorb the story. Gameplay just gets in the way of that. Having to do some silly task to turn a page in a book would be annoying. More to the point, being forced to watch the long boring opening of a movie again every time you wanted to see one particular bit because you couldn't fast-forward or being forced to restart from a checkpoint because you missed a bit of what someone said and couldn't rewind would be annoying too. And these are things even the most gameplay light games just don't let you do. It gets to the point when watching a Let's Play is actually a better experience then playing yourself for some games. You just have more control over how you absorb the story.

Still, a bit of gameplay in a story may have it's place. The best example would be something like Homestuck which is layed out as a series of pages, 99% of which is just long linear comic sections, but has a few flash gameplay segments thrown in as well. In particular the comment Yahtzee made about giving the player choice in reading exposition reminds me strongly of segments of Homestuck where it just lets you guide a character in an enclosed space and converse with other characters. Sometimes there are light puzzle elements, but usually it seems the game segments of Homestuck just exist to allow a lot of exposition or character building without really bogging down the pace for people who don't care that much. And if even the light puzzle segments are too much, the game pages can just be skipped altogether. That way it offers the option of the pacing of gameplay without as many of the headaches, and you are still rewarded through playing with a bit more story data. It seems to me that mixed media experiments like Homestuck is probably the best way to embed games in stories, if that is actually what the author wants to do.

In one Law & Order game you're given a short tutorial on lawyering and tasked with interrupting the defense/prosecution (can't remember the details) whenever necessary. You also need to provide a reason for the objection (hearsay, argumentative, battering). It was very challenging because you had to pay close attention to everything they said and had a very short time to react.

Another thing I'd like to see is a protagonist who has some kind of limitation or disability like ADHD or autism. It should affect how they communicate and perceive the world. You could e.g. wake up to the alarm on a Friday morning, go to work as usual only to find that you're early, late, at the wrong office or it's actually Saturday and you don't work on Saturdays. You could have a conversation with someone who says one thing but means another, and it's not obvious what they want or why they're upset. Or say something that comes out wrong. If it has to be based on a profession (detectives are to adventure games what zombies are to... well, everything), the protagonist would have to be high-functioning enough to hold down a job.

A linguistics professor once said that reading emails from her dyslexic colleague is like solving riddles. Adventure games need riddles, right?

I like hidden object games because of the casual puzzles. Dominoes, sliding tiles, jigsaw puzzles... Can't really think of a way they could be naturally incorporated into a game though.

I'd like to see puzzles based on real-life situations. Again, the only situation I can think of right now is when my nephew's toy train derailed. "Oops! Bork. Bork." It wasn't much of a challenge to reattach the train cars and put them back on the track. But if I thought about it some more, I'm sure something would pop up.

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